I have not felt as if I had any connection with my ancestors; but it turns out that I do. Not in the “descended from royalty” kind, or the “long line of heroes” type, but the “inherited a poor resilience structure” kind. I do have a history, and it is painful.
After several years in recovery I had to look at my life before liquor, my childhood before cocaine, my minority before marijuana – you get the drift. There were behaviors and characteristics that had set the stage for my using, drinking, rampant sexuality, dependence on independence. I had to untangle my old solution set, and find a new structure for my character and inner self, just as I had found recovery for my disease of addiction. This had to start in my past.
With a family that moved often between cultures but had no center in itself, this wonderful cosmopolitan opportunity fed a feeling of insecurity rather than cultural richness.
Periods of financial security were few and far between. The risk of unemployment by my parents was a reality that came to pass from time to time. Contract work gave those times of full employment a temporary feel. We could always be “out on our asses” at the end of the next school year.
Discord between my parents; my father’s difficulty with ‘life on life’s terms’ punctuated with deep depression and my mother’s active alcoholism caused strife between them and disharmony in the house. The late arrival of my brother (nine years my junior) shook up an already unstable system. We were toast.
I was like a swimmer desperately looking for the sides of the pool of my emotions. I was bossy, I was controlling, I was a people pleaser, at a younger than usual age I was boy crazy, and I was lost. I wanted something out there to hang on to, to reach for that would hold me up and provide structure. By the time structure came it was too late, I was already “handling it all myself”, thank you very much. I reached out when I was young (under ten) and by the time I was twelve I didn’t need you anymore.
It turns out this isn’t unusual for kids who grow up in homes like mine. No matter what country, what social class, what financial strata. In fact, no, years later, I have found out that both my parents grew up in similar situations. And, in fact, had theirs. We come from a long line of chaos, of disordered drinking, relationships, financial insecurity and the challenges of being immigrants. (Even white, from northern Europe; something happened at ‘home’ that made leaving everything you know, everyone you know, for another country a better bet than staying at home. That was the story of my grandparents fleeing the Kaiser and impressment – coming to the States. This is trauma.)
So I come by my unskillful coping traits honestly – by birthright, and with practice. These unhelpful behaviors include; enabling/denying, obsessing, controlling and manipulating, defensiveness, inability to know your own feelings or needs, argumentative, worrying, dependent, resentful, angry, people pleasing, playing the martyr or victim, having an inability to trust, being too talkative, deferential, and blaming or shaming self or others. (List from Lis Frederiksen’s upcoming book : “If You Loved Me You’d Stop”.)
Sustainable recovery for me has necessitated me looking deeper into my past at the roots of my disease. I had to locate these traits and find out how they operated in my life. I had to become honest with how these characteristics gave me solace and kept the world at bay, when I really wanted connection and authenticity. This in adequate coping mechanisms were not going to allow me sustain my recovery. They were counterproductive and anathema with healing.
So what have I done? I have held space for hurting. I have built up a tolerance for feeling emotional pain. I have had to open old wounds and let the toxins out. I have had to learn to reach out; for support in the form of listening, of holding in a caring hug, in getting advice from professionals, and avoiding advice from others who may not know so well. I have had to learn to tell the difference; move away from people pleasing and investigate things for myself. I have gotten more familiar with my ‘gut brain’ and at the same time find a group (small though it may be) of trusted friends on whom I can depend. I had to learn healthy ways to depend on others. And I had to develop a tolerance for disappointment; we are luckily not all “sick” on the same day, however, we are also not all well on the same day. I say this with a smile. I have disappointed others, as well, not being able to be “there” for them as I, myself was hurting. Expectations can also be toxic. But that no longer means “never trust”.
It is a path. There is a lot of untangling. The route seems circuitous, but I believe, like a labyrinth, I am always moving toward my true center.